Most students at High School West have read To Kill a Mockingbird during their first year. Still, this year’s curriculum was revised to include more than just the classic novel about the famous Atticus Finch. In addition, the English Department added Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, an autobiography that depicts the author’s childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The memoir is a series of bande dessinées (French comics) translated into English in 2003. Although in the curriculum since 2007, Persepolis became a required reading this year to make the curriculum more culturally inclusive.
Erica Fisher, an alumna of HSW, created a petition in mid-June of last year, which has almost 6000 signatures since its inception. She intended to bring a more inclusive educational experience to HHH. “There is no denying that the curricula we all experienced as HHH students lacked inclusivity and adequate representation of black history and culture, nor did it adequately address the deep-seated roots of racism and injustice in this country’s history.”
Ms. Fisher then sent letters to the Board of Education and district administration in mid-June of last year, right after her petition had gone viral during the Juneteenth holiday. Dr. Harrigan, Superintendent of Schools, reached out to Erica right after the Juneteenth holiday of last year.
Shortly after, an Instagram account run by Hills West alumni, called @BIPOCATHHH, followed Ms. Fisher’s petition for a change to the curriculum. In a letter to Dr. Harrigan, posted through a series of screenshots on their Instagram account, @BIPOCATHHH stated, “Racism, lack of representation, and mistreatment of black students, indigenous students, and students of color have been present in our district for many years… We believe, with anecdotal evidence, that this type of ignorance can begin from a young age.”
The account’s demands asked for the incorporation of indigenous history, awareness of race-related issues, and the need for supplemental training for teachers. In response, Dr. Harrigan acknowledged these demands by stating that teachers, counselors, and administrators have begun the framework for “maintaining an open dialog about issues such as those raised in HHH BIPOC… the ongoing involvement of students in the curriculum writing process for both ELA and Social Studies.” During the summer of 2020, the HHH English department made changes to curriculums of multiple grade levels.
However, when Persepolis was introduced to the freshman classes at High School West, it was quickly met with concern from parents and students. A range of interest groups didn’t want it included in the curriculum for a variety of reasons. The Board of Education hosted parent concerns on February 8th, 2021. The BOE decided to put the teaching of the book on hold. Unfortunately, some teachers were in the middle of the unit at the time.
So what caused the controversy surrounding the teaching of Persepolis, a book that had been in the curriculum since 2007?
The Half Hollow Hills’ Coordinator of Secondary Language Arts and Reading, Ms. Foy, shared her thoughts regarding the book. She read Persepolis roughly 20 years ago and said, “the book provided insight for me into historical events that led to the Iranian Revolution.”
Additionally, while considering adding the book as required reading, she explained, “it is important to note, however, that the recommended instructional level for Persepolis is grades 9 and 10. It has also been taught in younger grades around the country as well as at the college level.”
Although it was seemingly “age-appropriate,” the book still aroused great displeasure among some parents from High School West and the Muslim Student Association. In February, a curriculum request was placed by parents to try to replace Persepolis with To Kill a Mockingbird, although both texts continued to remain on the curriculum and could be taught by teachers at both high schools. Almost 2,000 people have signed the petition to have it replaced, and the Board heard the signatures. According to the petition, “Persepolis does not align with the current 9th-grade social studies curriculum and contains many topics for which the students have no context.”
The Muslim Student Association (MSA) made a similar argument. Hadeeqa Malik, vice president of the club, stated that “we feel that the teachers should be properly educated on Islam before discussing the subject matter with students.” She further argued that first-year students hadn’t had enough historical context in their social studies classes, as they have not learned about the Islamic Revolution.
MSA also wrote letters to the ELA department to replace the book due to its content. Or rather the lack of it. But there was another issue surrounding the questions used to teach the book. According to another officer of the club, “the book was not the main problem the club had, but it was the questions regarding the reading.”
One of the questions that created a backlash was, “notice how the veil distracts from each girls’ identity. Why do you think women, and not men, were forced to wear the veil? How does the veil function in fundamentalist societies?” Although the questions were intended to explore the fundamentalist regime’s questionable practices, students and parents saw the lack of context as more harmful than productive. Unfortunately, these questions were not part of the planned and approved curriculum, but rather questions that were used by some teachers as supplemental material for the unit.
And as argued by the MSA, any person who understands Islam knows that the religion does not force women to wear a hijab. In Islamic culture, a hijab symbolizes their faith and protection of a woman’s beauty. The club believes that instilling such thoughts into students’ minds without them understanding the religion will cloud their judgment.
Many parents addressed their concerns at the Board of Education meeting on February 8th, 2021.
Sonia Qadir, a mother of four within the district, expressed her concern over the book at this meeting. She shared that “this book, that was meant, I think by the committee, to do a good thing, to represent Muslims, to go ahead and talk about the Iranian Revolution, to try and make it more inclusive, unfortunately, missed the point.” She explained that if not taught properly, it could spread Islamophobia and misinform students of what happened at that time. Muslim students reported that they were upset during class because they felt all eyes were on them.
On the other hand, the argument for removing the book quickly slipped from a misinterpretation of Islam as argued by Muslim families into disagreements on the age-appropriateness of Persepolis, which wasmade by other families from High School West.
According to a parent within the district, “ Persepolis is ‘pervasively vulgar,’ ‘educationally unsuitable,’ does not meet the district’s 9th Grade Curriculum Map for required ‘vocabulary and sentence structure,’ nor is it the ‘community standard.” Following arguments made in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s, dissenting parents from High School West believed the same logic should call for the replacement of Persepolis.
The case, known as Board of Education v. Pico, argued for banning some “anti-Semitic” and “anti-white” books in March of 1982 and decided in June of that same year. The case itself determined that books cannot be banned simply because the school board does not like the topic but must have a valid reason for doing so. Causes may include whether the book is inappropriate for children, contains inadequate vocabulary and grammar, or not meeting educational standards (whether or not something can be learned).
Freshmen such as Jacob Goldbaum and Molly Bernal didn’t find it offensive. Molly Bernal stated, “when I heard it was banned, I was shocked because what we read wasn’t ban-worthy. The book deals with more mature topics like war, prison torture, classism, and more in only the first few chapters. Maybe topics shown later on had parents worried, but for the most part, I was fine with the material.”
Almost everyone was surprised when the book was under review. When classes stopped reading the book, Ciara Brown, freshman, shared that, “I was curious and questioned why because I didn’t know anything about [the controversy], and then I heard the context of the book and heard it was under review.”
“As a parent, I understand the desire to keep children innocent. To that end, however, there would also have to be strict Internet controls. When children see or read unsuitable content on the Internet, they need to discuss and process it to heal any discord or disharmony from the loss of innocence and idealism. According to the American Library Association charts, sexual references and obscene language are more offensive to parents than violence,” shared Ms. Benson. She had been teaching Persepolis before the district pulled it.
The conversation regarding Persepolis is about how children are affected by it. How does literature affect the student psyche, and how can our education affect other parts of our lives? “The frame in the novel Persepolis that disturbed parents is indeed upsetting; it also sickened the character to whom it happened. One purpose of discussing human nature’s flaws is dealing with and resolving problematic issues and declaring that these evils should NOT happen. If we ignore these issues, how are children going to survive and thrive in this world?” said Ms. Benson.
The Board of Education meeting on March 22nd revisited the inclusion of Persepolis in the freshman English curriculum. The BOE decided that the book will not be part of the freshman curriculum, but is currently considering it for upper-level students. However, the book is still available for all to read within the HSW library.
The ELA Department will be training this summer under Drs. Nicole Mirra and Lauren Kelly from Rutgers University. Dr. Lauren Kelly, a former English teacher at High School West and graduate of High School East, now teaches full-time at Rutgers University.
The controversy surrounding Persepolis is multi-faceted, but one big takeaway from this is that there are always good intentions at play, no matter your opinion. The district continues to attempt to meet the needs of its diverse and dynamic student population.